Docbox Books

Lu Xinyu,
Documenting China: The Contemporary Documentary Movement in China

Beijing, SDX Joint Publishing Company, 2003 (in Chinese). ISBN: 7-108-01849-7
Feng Yan

China during the 1980s was a time in contemporary history when ideals and reality interlaced. With the intensification of political reform and the flood of new ideas from abroad, all kinds of formerly suppressed desires burst forth. Artistic forms including music, drama, film and painting raced against each other in an “experimental” spirit and tried to rebel against the discourse of traditional ideology with independent, free, and individual modes of expression. From the late 1980s, a succession of documentaries emerged that are very significant within the history of Chinese documentary filmmaking: Wu Wenguang’s Bumming in Beijing—The Last Dreamer, Jiang Yue’s The Other Bank, Shi Jian’s Graduated, Duan Jinchuan and Zhang Yuan’s The Square, and Kang Jianning’s Yin Yang, among others. These documentaries, shot on the fly, took an everyman’s perspective on the fate of China’s underclass and marginalized peoples. With techniques like sync-sound, long takes, follow shots, and interviews, they made a clear break with zhuantipian (formal television documentaries), which relied heavily on narrative voiceover.

In response to these documentary making activities that appeared almost spontaneously, author Lu Xinyu uses the term New Documentary Movement, defined as “the solicitude for the human spirit, attention to the rock bottom of society, and a bottom-up perspective.” Based on meticulous field research, Lu takes a historical and academic approach to exhaustively recount the historical context that gave birth to the New Documentary Movement, the perspectives and methods of the movement’s pioneers, and its course of development.

Documenting China: The Contemporary Documentary Movement in China is made up of two parts. Dialogue, the first section, is comprised of eleven interviews with important representatives of the New Documentary Movement. In Dialogue we discover that the changes in Chinese society during the late 1980s sparked the birth of the documentary movement and left a deep impression on this first group of independent works. Wu Wenguang, the most influential director during the early days and director of the film Bumming in Beijing, himself went “bumming” from Yunnan to Beijing, and the main characters of the film are poets, painters and artists, who are “bumming” around the city as well. Their choice was to live a lifestyle in opposition to the mainstream. Another director who experienced this period, Jiang Yue, interpreted this special spirit of the 1980s as a “utopian movement.” His film The Other Bank describes just such a group of young people who seek utopia, and whose youth and dreams are shattered. It seems that the pioneers of the New Documentary Movement carried out the spiritual change from idealism to reality on the ruins of utopia, and pointed their gaze at the bottom strata of society.

With the exception of Wu Wenguang, Jiang Yue and Duan Jinchuan, who were already acting outside the system when they started shooting their important works, the remainder of these eleven main protagonists have remained inside the state’s television system until today and hold important posts. Therefore, the New Documentary Movement in China has mainly been forged through television-related activities. This is a very important fact. It was precisely their special status and the tide of the times that initially led them to the moment of rebellion. Helped by their advantageous positions in mainstream media, they gave documentaries a legal status within the system through formal television documentaries, made documentaries accessible to the vast Chinese audience and established a wide-reaching audience base for the development of documentaries in China.

The second part of Documenting China is called Monologues. It is made up of eight papers and six essays the author wrote between 1996 and 2002. Here the author elaborates from an academic angle the character of the New Documentary Movement and her understanding of the concept of “documentary” in the Chinese context.

“We should not simply equate the Chinese documentary directly with the Western documentary. Throughout its development Western cinema has had various genres and categories, each with its own particular social background. However, the discursive practice of Chinese documentaries in the context of the 1980s incorporated a rebellious force that was also specifically directed against the given context of Chinese television, namely the kind of most basic filmmaking which strictly follows established guidelines and matches images to pre-written voiceover. The New Documentary Movement sought recognition on this basis and took these formal television documentaries as the starting point for its shared rebellion. This shared method and the emergence of public response provoked the New Documentary Movement to come into being in the form of a movement.”

Documenting China is unique in its use of a macro and historical perspective to attempt to characterize the status of Chinese documentaries in the late 1980s. It not only pays attention to the works and their forms, but also pays particular attention to the ideas of the documentary filmmakers, as well as their roots and their relationship to the times. The author provides us with a very detailed memoir to help us understand and study the rise and development of the New Documentary Movement in China. But at the same time, her view is limited, since the author narrows her focus to the earliest participants of the movement, the course of their personal histories, television documentaries and their important role in the early days of the movement, and their decay after the attack by a huge wave of “audience ratings” and “commercialization.” Therefore, she too early jumps to the conclusion that the documentary movement already ebbed at the end of the 1990s and moreover it is somewhat disappointing that she puts her hopes for the vigorous development of the documentary on the reform of the television system. It has to be recognized that the special status of the movement’s key persons also shackled them, and this is the real reason which led them to lose their voice in their individual works from the late 1990s. Furthermore, we have to pay attention to the great number of DV documentaries that emerged from the late 1990s. Although the content and form of DV works are not yet mature, nevertheless the DV camera provided a possibility for even more people to express their “independent” and “individual” perspectives. New ways of thinking had for the first time gained sustaining vitality because of the support of technical means. Although the good and bad are intermingled and unsorted, the new generation of documentary filmmakers stand apart from the “mainstream media” and the “discourse of power.” In this sense they indeed carry on the mantle of the New Documentary Movement. After all, a “bottom-up perspective” can refer to hope for the future, just as for ideas.

—Translated by Katharina Schneider-Roos


Feng Yan
Documentary filmmaker. Has been making a documentary on the people living in the Three Gorges region along the Changjiang River. First work Dreams of Changjiang was screened in YIDFF ’97 New Asian Currents. She is current in production for the sequel, The Women of Changjiang.

Richard Kilborn,
Staging the Real: Factual TV Programming in the Age of Big Brother

Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2003. ISBN: 0-7190-5682-9
Ann Yamamoto

Staging the Real offers a remarkably even-handed treatment of reality television, a genre where success often hinges on the ability to provoke extreme reactions. Joining a recent outpouring of works that try to make sense of reality television’s viral spread through broadcasting schedules during the past decade, Kilborn’s study stands out for its commitment to mapping out a future for serious documentaries. Focusing mainly on the UK, Kilborn argues that the fate of documentaries has been inextricably bound up with changes in television programming for the past several decades. While many may prefer a clearly drawn line between reality television and serious documentary work, Kilborn uses the portmanteau “factual television programming” to encompass them both, and he tackles questions of central importance to documentarists to illuminate both obstacles and new pathways created by reality television.

The first two chapters explore the factors that have fueled reality television’s phenomenal growth, pointing to increasing commercialization, audience fragmen-tation, and the proliferation of new interactive and recording technologies. Producers of serious documentaries have found this changing broadcasting environment to be more trying. Documentary makers once worked with a consistent client base of public television outlets, but now confront a market split between established broadcasters and a secondary tier of cable, satellite and digital channels. Both sets of broadcasters are doggedly focused on capturing high ratings, pressuring producers to deliver tried-and-true audience pleasing content, rather than riskier programs with aspirations beyond mere entertainment. Within this market-driven environment, documentaries can no longer justify their timeslots based on appeals to the public good or critical opinion, and have to fight side-by-side with new factual formats for airtime.

Having scoped out the media landscape in which serious documentaries must make their home, Kilborn devotes the remaining four chapters to exploring whether reality television programs have “created exciting new opportunities for factual entertainment or, alternatively, sounded the death knell for those more serious forms of documentary work which claimed to be culturally enlightening rather than thinly disguised entertainment vehicles.” (p. 51) He surveys the evolution of formats like Accident and Emergency, docu-soap and game-doc modes, observing how broadcasters continually play the “reality card” to spin off an endless succession of new hybrids. Responding to these developments in factual television programming, Kilborn carefully sifts through the cacophony of existing criticism and contributes numerous insights of his own.

Kilborn directs his harshest criticism at the impact of commercialization on factual television programming. While new factual formats promise to bring viewers the “world of reality,” in fact the content shown is thoroughly commercialized and utterly removed from life’s real issues. Complex situations are pared down to easily digestible dramas. Kilborn comments that “many of the techniques for absorbing the viewer into dramatic action have been borrowed from film and television fiction. At the same time, producers are out to exploit the reality status of what is being depicted.” (p. 65-66)

New factual formats similarly work to use new technology for maximum entertainment value. Portable recording devices enable producers to achieve an unprecedented degree of intimacy with their subjects, but the end result tends to be exploitative and voyeuristic content. Kilborn observes that in some cases producers infringe on the rights of unwilling protagonists, and in the US the Supreme Court has taken steps to limit producers’ ability to document police raids and arrests without full permission from all parties.

However, Kilborn carefully weighs the evidence at hand and suggests that the new factual formats are not necessarily cultural catastrophes. Commercialization has in some ways been an antidote to the condescending tone sometimes found in documentaries of previous eras, forcing documentary makers to be more sensitized to audience perspectives. Looking at the phenomenally successful survival show
Big Brother, Kilborn finds innovative approaches to interactive media, set design and audience participation. Furthermore, “far from being a dissipating force, hybridization can sustain and re-animate genres—and in the case of factually based broadcast material will enable audiences to connect or engage with contemporary issues which may bring new insights and understandings.” (p. 195) The audience might not be as dumbed down as some critics fear, as demonstrated by the popularity of mockumentaries and spoofs poking fun at reality television’s pretenses. The image used for the book’s cover comes from the The Truman Show, an example of this kind of creative interplay between creators and audience.

While many criticize recent reality television for its blatant violation of privacy and manipulation of reality to match narrative requirements, Kilborn skillfully relates these concerns back to debates from the earliest days of documentary film and cinema in general. The use of reenactments, dramatic devices, and voyeurism can all be found within the repertoire of “serious documentaries,” and techniques like blurred images and reframing to create a feeling of “being there” were first pioneered by Direct Cinema. Kilborn also considers a series of incidents where faked material was discovered in reality television programs, leading to questions about the integrity of the documentary genre and a violation of the audience’s trust. Kilborn finds that these incidents are the exception rather than the rule, and focuses instead on where to draw the line between Grierson’s “creative treatment of actuality” and outright fraud (p. 123-4).

Overall, Kilborn is careful to consider a wide range of responses to new factual television formats, remaining critical of the dumbing down that often results from market pressures, while also appreciating how commercialization can spur innovation and the creation of hybrid forms. Perhaps the most useful and refreshing aspects of Kilborn’s analysis are insights linking the debate surrounding reality television to concerns that have been central to the development of documentaries over the past century. Staging the Real approaches new factual television formats with a formidable set of questions that open new avenues for moving forward with the larger project of making serious documentaries.


Ann Yamamoto
Co-editor of Documentary Box. Ph.D. candidate at the University of Tokyo, currently researching the role of media and culture in urban revitalization.